By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER
The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern has just gotten bigger.
With the help of two state grants and the Tuolumne County Land Trust, late last month, the Bureau of Land Management closed the deal on 93 acres off Old Don Pedro Road, expanding the protected land to about 7,200 acres.
Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern lies southwest of the Highway 120-108 intersection. Yellow, purple and white wildflowers are just beginning to bloom, and grass blankets the rolling hills. The area is popular with hikers and equestrians, and Brian Kermeen, vice chairman of Tuolumne County Land Trust, said trails will stretch into the new land as well.
"This area is special. I kind of view it as the gateway to the mountains," Kermeen said.
Tuolumne County Land Trust and BLM used two grants from Caltrans' Environmental Enhancement Mitigation Program to purchase the lot from Sonora Realtor Bob Cowden, who had marked the land for sale as a ranchette. Kermeen said the groups paid Cowden's asking price of $350,000.
Caltrans often buys land to protect threatened plants or animals. The purchases compensate for other public land that the state agency is developing into roads.
"We were going to sell it to somebody, it might as well be (Red Hills)," said Dave Cowden, who works with his father, Bob, at Cowden Realty.
Dave Cowden said the expansion will help buyers of surrounding lots new residents will be able to walk out their front doors and onto a trailhead.
Dean Swickert, field manager with BLM in Folsom, was the federal agency's liaison for the purchase. He said the land's rare serpentine soil and two federally listed, threatened plants make the purchase even more valuable.
Serpentine soil is weathered and relatively infertile, much of it composed of old volcanic lava. Because it is so uncommon, the plants that thrive on it are uncommon as well.